TThe African painted dog, also known as the wild dog or painted wolf, has ears that appear to have been sewn on by a crazy old toymaker. They are huge, black, bristling discs that stretch slightly upward and are delicately held to form shallow bowls. At its bases there are tufts of white bristles, luckily.
As a child in South Africa, I was forced more than once to look at a large drop-down projection screen in the school hallway while it was raining outside, Naked, a unique and fast-paced kitsch film set in a dusty railway town that is visited by a traveling circus.
The ears of wild dogs remind me of a scene in which the clown, at night, pretends to be a hare, with his hands turning his ears in and out. (I can’t find this scene on YouTube; I may have made it up all those years ago while dissociating myself from my body, but Here is a dramatic recreation of the movie by secondary students).
Painted dog coats are an amazing mix of sharp patterns and fuzzy, furry patches. Together these create the impression that the dogs are moving quickly and are perfectly still. They have white-tipped tails, shiny black noses, live in packs, and sleep with their limbs resting on the bodies of their siblings.
Wild dogs vote by sneezing, deciding whether to hunt based on a “quorum” of achoos. When their ever-female leader dies, they vote for his successor with bloodcurdling screams and screams. They rarely fight and are particularly successful predators, gleefully tearing apart smaller live prey by holding one limb and pulling in four directions.
The cubs are faint black and look ancient, like old bronze, like the Capitoline Wolf.
Wild dogs live in sub-Saharan Africa. In southern Africa, the San say to legend: Moon declared that, just as he died and was reborn, people would be reborn. But Hare wouldn’t believe it. The moon and the hare fought — the moon split the hare’s lip, the hare scratched the surface of the moon — and the moon withdrew its offer of rebirth. He also condemned the hare to always be on the run, chased by wild dogs.
I have seen wild dogs in Zimbabwe, in Mana Pools, where the dogs live in the shade of local elephants, who are famous for their habit of rocking their heavy bodies on their hind legs to reach the tops of the trees.
In a documentary on the wild dogs of Mana, David Attenborough recounts how the cubs quickly return to their dens after watching an elephant chewing leaves come down to earth. Later, the leader of the pack travels, running with what Natalie Angier has described like legs “like the rods of a shadow puppet” – in the wide hole made in the mud by an elephant’s leg and hardened in the sun. Her leg is broken, but the pack does not abandon her. “Painted wolves, perhaps more than any other animal, take care of pack members who are old or injured,” Attenborough says. In other scenes, dogs are shown from above, their bodies thin as stitches on the ground, shadows rising in the profile of a trotting dog.
The painted dog was separated from other canids. 1.7 million years ago and it has four toes, compared to five for domestic dogs. However, I choose to believe that, as my Uncle James says of his dogs (which includes an English bulldog named Sam Sam Sam Sam Sam Sam Sam): You can smell the world on a dog’s paw.
A recent study found that what makes domestic dogs affectionate, devoted and so sweet to whatever animal they are raised with are the genes associated with a disorder that, in humans, causes “indiscriminate kindness.”
Wild dogs reserve this love and devotion for each other.
I am 22 years old at the Mana Pools reservation: in a patch of springy green plants lies a pack of painted dogs. From a game vehicle, a friend and I watched until the ranger inexplicably encourages us to get out of the vehicle, give a bad excuse for a leopard crawl, and lie down a meter or so from the herd. They don’t pay attention to us: it’s the golden hour and the dogs take turns gently closing their eyes and slightly tilting their large ears back in satisfaction.
“The Nature of …” is a column by Helen Sullivan devoted to interesting animals, insects, plants, and natural phenomena. Is there an intriguing creature or particularly lively plant that you think would delight our readers? Let us know on Twitter @helenrsullivan or by email: [email protected]
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism